“From Crisis in Perpetuity to Democratic Resilience”
Wednesday, 6 October 2021, Schlosstheater Neues Palais, Potsdam, hybrid
How we learn to better deal with an era of seemingly “perpetual crises”, i.e. how we achieve “democratic resilience“, and what responsibilities and current challenges the media have in this situation, was the topic of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium 2021.
Organised in a hybrid format, the conference started at 14.00 (CET) with three parallel Strategic Roundtable discussions on the digital platform Zoom.
Participants were introduced by Benjamin H. Bratton, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of California, USA, who spoke in a recorded keynote on “The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World“.
In his speech, he addressed the connection between the covid pandemic and the biological reality of society. The way in which post-pandemic politics complicates the deeply rooted cultures of individualism and subjectivism that are now at the heart of the notion of the common good, Bratton said, formally invites vocal reactions and resistance. This resistance is persistent because certain habits and impulses are firmly embedded in the core of Western social thought. That’s why the resistance comes not only from overtly populist political cultures, “but also, unfortunately, from philosophers where people have looked for guidance on what the interrelationships between biology, politics and the body were and should be.” Bratton advises post-pandemic politics to reject such misconceptions, ” even if the prospective demands for a positive biopolitics are not without controversy, legitimate and otherwise.” (You can read and watch the whole speech here.
This was followed by three parallel one-hour Strategic Roundtables. The participants had chosen in advance which roundtable they would like to attend.
STRATEGIC ROUNDTABLE I: „NEW BEGINNINGS: LEADERSHIP IN (POST-)COVID TIMES“
Moderation: Annalisa Piras, journalist, filmmaker and Executive Director of the Wake Up Foundation
Input: Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of Law and Politics of the European Union, HEC Paris, France
• The Covid pandemic has proven to be a stress test for governments and societies worldwide. It will probably only be a foretaste of the impact of climate change.
• Leaders need to become more competent and better equipped to deal with crises than the current crisis has shown.
• They must not only understand science, but also be able to communicate it. The media must also play a greater role in this.
• Political decision-makers need more courage to overcome the stagnation in which Europe and the EU currently find themselves.
• The major democratic parties need to address the question of how to bridge the deep rifts within the EU.
• Media need to communicate facts more clearly and support science better.
• Solutions to major crises like Covid or climate change cannot be sought at national level alone, they are cross-border tasks.
• The changes ahead are so complex that qualified information is needed more than ever.
• Independent journalism must be financed and fundable, which is why the role of the state should be discussed.
Strategic Roundtable I discussed the quality of political leadership in Europe in the face of the pandemic, which is proving to be a stress test for governments and societies worldwide.
Covid will not be the last crisis, but probably only a foretaste of the effects of climate change. Participants discussed how crisis-proof our democracies are, what lessons we should learn from this, what reforms are needed to identify emerging threats in time in the future. And how we can preserve the cohesion and acceptance of societies in a state of emergency and prevent concrete problems such as a pandemic, migration or climate change from becoming crises of democracy in the end.
In his input, Prof. Alberto Alemanno quoted the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who wrote that pandemics in history are always a moment of renewal and change, a break between the old and the new. So the question is whether we should see the Covid19 pandemic as a portal, a gateway to the future.
A major problem of (political) leadership almost everywhere in the world was the lack of speed in responding to the pandemic and the problems of adapting to these constantly new challenges that the virus brought to leaders, Alemanno said. The pandemic also made it clear, he said, that there was and still is a dramatic gap between the decisions of political leaders, the science and the way the science was communicated to people. But Covid also acted as a great catalyst, spurring creativity and implying opportunity.
A lack of courage is the biggest problem of democratic leaders in the EU, one participant said. They are afraid to make decisions for fear that they might be the wrong ones or that their voters might not like them. This is why politicians and the entire public sector in Europe are in a state of stagnation. Decision-making processes in the private sector are much more effective than in the public sector because people in the private sector take more risks, which makes them more experienced in crisis management and in overcoming problems.
For a new kind of leadership, the important lesson is that new leaders must be much more competent and prepared for crises, that they need not only to understand science but also to be able to communicate it.
The assumption by some political leaders that solutions to the pandemic would lie at the national level magnified the disaster. The result was many national, disjointed, ineffective initiatives. One positive aspect of this was that the pandemic taught us that cross-border cooperation can work and that cooperation in crisis situations like this is the right way to go.
Therefore, when it comes to vital goods, which includes vaccines, but also energy, for example, one should go back to the idea of public goods, the procurement of which could be organised and achieved through joint action by different nations.
It is clear that the media must play a greater role in supporting this task. After all, most of the problems, especially regarding the wearing or not wearing of masks and vaccination, were a direct result of the inability of media to communicate facts clearly and support science in these troubling times.
Functioning journalism and better access to trustworthy information are extremely important. However, journalism must also be paid for. Therefore, the question arose whether information should not be considered a public good that should be freely accessible, which, however, contradicts the traditional business models of media companies, which are functioning less and less well anyway.
It was suggested that the role of the state should be brought back to the centre of the debate when it comes to financing journalism, as the upcoming changes are so complex that we need qualified information more than ever.
STRATEGIC ROUNDTABLE II: “FIT FOR THE JOB? EUROPE’S ROLE IN A NEW WORLD ORDER”
Moderation: Christoph Lanz, Head of Board Thomson Media
• Europe seems to be facing a double challenge: It must consolidate internally and grow externally. It must grow into its global responsibility as an economic heavyweight but be a military lightweight.
• Europe will probably not be able to exist autonomously in the future, but will be strategically dependent on the USA. Nevertheless, the EU must finally develop a European strategy, both in domestic and foreign policy.
• It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a common consensus among the EU countries. Therefore, the decision-making process within the EU must be reformed.
• The EU must not allow China, nor Russia, to divide the EU. To overcome these major challenges, the unification process must be pushed forward.
• If we want to ensure stability in Europe’s neighbouring regions, we must think about what means of pressure – be they political or economic – the EU has to put pressure on member states that do not abide by European rules.
• Europe’s economic power must be fully exploited. Europe must export stability more consistently, led by Germany. Secure energy supplies, secure trade relations, be independent of China.
• The EU must weigh its global engagement wisely and set priorities and pursue a more sustainable policy. It should be less concerned with being present in the South China Sea and more concerned with its closest neighbours, such as the African continent and the Middle East.
• The EU lacks self-confidence and trust in European values, not least caused by fake news, misinformation and propaganda. But Europe should urgently hold on to its values and not give them up.
The discussion in Roundtable II took place on two different levels: On the first level, there was an inside-out perspective on Europe on the question of the need for institutional reforms in Europe, e.g. the transition from consensus to majority voting. The question of whether the enlargement of the European Union was feasible and even a good idea at the present time was also intensely debated. On a second level, the participants looked at Europe from the outside.
The result of the discussion was that Europe seems to have reached a point with a double challenge: Europe must consolidate internally and at the same time grow externally. It must grow into its global responsibility as an economic heavyweight but be a military lightweight.
If the EU wants to ensure stability in Europe’s neighbouring regions, it must think about what means of pressure – be they political or economic – the West can use against these autocracies.
A big problem is that the EU is not effectively organised. It has the same economic power as the US and China, but without an effective decision-making and a common strategy,it is easy to divide the EU from the outside. The EU also has no power to put pressure on countries in the EU that do not abide by European rules. Talks on EU enlargement towards the Balkans should only take place once the decision-making processes have been reformed and reorganised. Quote from one participant: “At the moment, EU rules are made exclusively for fair weather, and when the rain comes, everyone is surprised that we are not able to protect ourselves.”
A key point of the discussion was whether the universal principles propagated by the West over decades – freedom, rule of law, free trade, liberal market economy – had proved illusory. Whether Iraq and Afghanistan were a message that the fight for democracy was a concept from the past, an illusion.
Another point of discussion revolved around the question of whether European values are outdated. The clear answer was: No, they are not. Europe should definitely hold on to these values and continue to propagate them.
STRATEGIC ROUNDTABLE III: “‘A MATTER OF FACTS TRUST’: SCIENCE AND JOURNALISM IN PERILOUS TIMES”
Moderation: Alexandra Borchardt, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Input: Wolfgang Blau, Visiting Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University
• Climate competence must be enormously expanded in editorial offices. We need a new approach to adequately report on climate change.
• Journalists, editorial offices and media houses need common standards to communicate climate change to the public in a competent and understandable way.
• There needs to be investment in journalistic training, as it is very difficult to find staff with the necessary skills across Europe.
• Closer cooperation between scientists and journalists is needed to ensure that journalists understand the scientific facts and are able to communicate them to the public.
• The pandemic has increased trust in the media. According to the Digital News Report, trust in the media has increased by six percentage points worldwide, while it is very low on social media.
• Constructive journalism will play a major role in the journalism of the future, showing not only disasters and threats, but constructive solutions.
Roundtable III dealt mainly with the relationship between science and the media and the daily work in editorial offices.
In his impulse, Wolfgang Blau, who has studied climate change reporting in recent years, defined climate change as one of the most important topics for journalism, especially for young audiences. The editorial offices would have to develop climate competence enormously. He said there is an urgent need to change the fact that we talk about digital literacy and media literacy, but not enough about climate literacy, neither in the population nor in the arts, nor in newsrooms.
News organisations should do everything in their power to use know-how to convey the basics of climate science to their viewers and readers as quickly and as well as possible. For this journalists, newsrooms and media houses need common standards, he said.
However, it is very difficult for small local editorial offices to meet these requirements because they do not have sufficient capacities, neither technically nor in terms of personnel. Throughout Europe, it became clear in the discussion, that the mostly young audience is very interested in climate change, but it is enormously difficult to find staff with the necessary skills.
Participants also stressed the need for closer cooperation between scientists and journalists to ensure that journalists understand the scientific facts and are able to communicate them to the public.
It was emphasised that science does not always mean certainty, but is also based on doubt, and that it is a great challenge and task for the media and journalists to communicate this.
Participants expressed the experience that the pandemic had strengthened trust in journalism. This shows that the debate about declining trust in journalism as a whole is not true. As the Digital News Report showed this year, trust in media has increased by six percentage points globally across all markets, while it is very low in social media. Traditional media, the big brands with their newsrooms, struggle every day to convince people to communicate with their audiences. They have a great deal of trust and need to capitalise on it; only a radical minority have no trust in the media, and journalists need to make the most of it.
There was also a discussion about the demands on journalism in the future. The prevailing conviction was that constructive journalism will play a major role. That stories have to be shaped in such a way that they are constructive and offer solutions, because if people only see catastrophes and dramas in the news, they turn away, that is a psychological effect. The unanimous opinion is that people want to be shown constructive ways out of the eternal disasters. Journalism must also show the big picture and inspire people. That is one of the great tasks and challenges for journalism.
SPECIAL TALK “THE TOTALITARIAN TEMPTATION”
After a short break, the participants present gathered in the palace theatre of the Neues Palais. Prof. Dr Andreas Reckwitz, Professor of General Sociology and Sociology of Culture, Humboldt University Berlin, gave deep insights into the topic of resilience in modern times in his opening speech “Resilience in late Modernity“. “Resilience has appeared as a key term of public debate. It could indeed become a crucial concept for the post-Covid 19 era, or even for 21st century politics as a whole. For, it appears to literally impose itself on us, if we try to derive a reasonable lesson from the handling of the pandemic: Societies must become more resilient. Individuals should work on their mind and psychic structure to gain resilience, and the state should provide a framework for society to do so. Resilience is generally about the ability to be prepared for undesirable, even shocking events.” Read the whole speech here.
Afterwards, Saad Mohseni (Afghan-Australian media entrepreneur and co-founder and chairman of the MOBY Group), Dr Claudia Major (Head of the International Security Department at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs SWP), and Dr Can Dündar (top Turkish journalist and editor-in-chief of Özgurüz) discussed the state and future of democracy at the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium. Moderated by the international TV presenter Ali Aslan, the panel analysed in particular the rise of totalitarian regimes and the mistakes Western governments have made in dealing with Afghanistan, Turkey, the Middle East and also Africa and China in their attempts to export democracy.
In 2002, Saad Mohseni established the Moby Group, the first private, independent media company in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where women also work as journalists and presenters. He thus helped shape the country’s development into a democracy for almost 20 years and has now experienced the erosion of progress by the Taliban at first hand. He was in Afghanistan for the last time at the end of July.
Mohseni, whose station and its 400 staff are still active in Afghanistan, stressed that the last few years had not been in vain in view of the current situation. Unlike in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, this time around, women demonstrated in the streets for their rights, civil society actors initiated campaigns for girls’ education and the Taliban had to have discussions with women and civil society on television. This was unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago and of course has something to do with the education system, which has also given girls access to schools and universities.
But an erosion of democracy has not only been seen in Afghanistan, but also in educated Western societies around the world, including in Europe, where illiberal democracies have taken hold, not least in Poland and Hungary.
Claudia Major recalls Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 book “The End of History” argued that after the collapse of the USSR, the principles of liberalism in the form of democracy and a market economy would soon prevail everywhere. The crucial question, according to Major, is why democracy has lost this effect, the other is how we get it back. The temptation to roll back democracy in favour of totalitarian regimes is not taking place loudly and visibly with coups and revolutions, but in a quiet, subtle way, an undermining of democratic institutions, rights and freedoms, both in Afghanistan and Turkey and in European countries. There have been reductions in media freedom, an erosion of media and education systems and restrictions on freedoms. “You don’t actually see things changing, but at some point you stand there and say: Wait a minute, that’s not a democratic state anymore, because freedom of education, freedom of expression, etc. have suddenly disappeared.” You only have to look at the insidious processes in countries like Poland or Hungary.
This includes the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the undermining of arms control treaties, which are indications of the legal democratic order being abandoned, both nationally and internationally.
Can Dündar, who has been living in exile in Berlin since 2016 and runs his independent German-Turkish news platform Özgürüz (We are free) from there, pointed out the mistakes that the USA and European countries have made in dealing with the Middle East over the last 40 years. The first mistake the Americans made was to use Islam against communism and to support the Islamists, which led to the founding of Al-Qaida. The second mistake was the attempt to install a moderate Islam instead of radical Islam and to support, for example, the Turkish president Erdogan and other leaders. However, they made no attempt to consider promoting the liberal or secular forces in these countries. And when the refugee crisis came about in 2015, Europe had no choice but to pay Erdogan to stop the flow of refugees into Europe. When it comes to the political interests of Western European countries and the USA, they are prepared to sacrifice democratic principles. This weakens democracy as a whole.
Claudia Major added that after the end of the Cold War, Germany had believed itself to be on the good side of history, having won against the Soviet Union, which showed that the liberal world was winning. This gave rise to the fallacy that if we only cooperate closely enough with other countries that do not have a democratic system, they would thereby become a liberal and economically free country. However, we see today that this didn’t work. The wake-up call was the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Donbass, and the recent alarm call regarding China, Major said. The approach of this foreign policy had clearly proved to be wrong. What led to the reunification of Germany had not worked worldwide.
Saad Mohseni said that “many values that are so important to us are internationally recognised, universal values like freedom of expression, freedom of speech. These are not just Western freedoms.” The lessons from Afghanistan are that it takes time and that above all you need an educated social class, a civil society in which women’s rights and freedom of speech and expression prevail. At the same time, of course, the supporters of this democratic process should not be the ones promoting corrupt politicians.
Can Dündar added that Germany, which was able to become a democratic country through a lot of support and time, should also support democratic forces and countries worldwide. “You can’t just close the door”, he said, totalitarianism and authoritarianism is “like air pollution, it doesn’t stop at borders”.
The central democratic political role of the media was also discussed by the panellists. In Turkey, according to Can Dündar, almost all media institutions are controlled by the government and are purely propaganda machines. Which is why he and his team attempt to reach out to the people in Turkey from afar, which is not exactly easy under the circumstances. Extreme caution is required so far away from the reporters on the ground and from the sources, and of course funding is also a problem.
Social networks also played a major role, according to the discussants. On the one hand, they are helpful and often indispensable when it comes to reaching readers, viewers and target groups. On the other hand, fake news is spread uncontrollably on a massive scale through them; there are opaque algorithms, a lot of sensationalism, excitement, racism, sexism and violence, which leads to further divisions within society.
Claudia Major stressed that after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the aggressive Russian foreign policy in the Baltic countries, journalism in particular should be promoted and journalists should be supported in order to be able to counter false news from Russia. To be able to analyse and better interpret media and develop a stronger resilience to fake news. That is why it is necessary to invest in journalism everywhere, especially where it is difficult to access. And you also have to train the population to recognise good journalism.
Something that is often overlooked in this context, Major continued, is the influence of think tanks and science from outside. For example, some groups attempt to influence the scientific discourse by threatening scientists or trying to determine the discourse in certain subject areas, such as the pandemic or the origin of the pandemic. That is why it is important to defend scientific and academic freedom. “We should know who is funding which chair, which think tank, because freedom of thought is as important as freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
Regarding the increasing fragmentation and polarisation in society in many countries, Claudia Major shared the impression that “in recent years we have realised that democracy is a critical infrastructure that we need to protect just like our energy systems”. Whether in the media or education, we have to “stand in opposition to our public opinion and research being undermined by other countries, we have to screen, not only in terms of Russian and Chinese influence in the national economy, but also in the media landscape”. I think there is an awareness process.”
Despite the current state of democracy, Can Dündar is optimistic about the future. We have all learned a lot from the pandemic and he had the impression that in many societies social tendencies were starting to get stronger again, be it in the USA or in Germany, he stressed. It is important that education and media are further strengthened and supported. As far as his home country is concerned, Dündar is confident “that we will soon have an end to this dark period of time”. Because it is also clear to see in Turkey that politics and Islamism cannot live together; religion must be separated from politics. The opposition alliance is becoming more powerful, he said, and his hopes are high that a democratic alliance will win in Turkey’s next elections.
Saad Mohseni pointed out that what happens in Afghanistan will not stay in Afghanistan. The dictatorial regime will force millions of people to leave the country. “Afghanistan is two countries away from Europe: Iran, Turkey and then comes Europe. And if Europeans are really concerned and worried about Afghanistan, they need to be concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan”, he said. He advised sitting down with the Taliban and engaging in the region. Which does not mean recognising the Taliban. It was time for Germany to take a leadership role, especially in Afghanistan and Turkey. “Because everything that happens in Afghanistan does not necessarily stay in the country. It will have an impact on Germany, Turkey and other countries.
Democracy, it was unanimously agreed, is fragile, with critical infrastructure that we need to protect just like our energy systems. And it cannot be taken for granted. We have to fight for it.
M100 MEDIA AWARD TO ALEXEI NAVALNY AND FBK
With the presentation of the M100 Media Award to Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation FBK, the international media conference M100 Sanssouci Colloquium came to a glittering and moving conclusion last night at the Palace Theatre in the Neues Palais.
Instead of the imprisoned Navalny, his campaign manager and close confidant Leonid Volkov accepted the award, which was presented to him by Potsdam’s Lord Mayor Mike Schubert.
The laudation was delivered by FDP leader Christian Lindner, who has been campaigning for Navalny’s release for months and, in the midst of exciting coalition negotiations, took the time to give the central political speech of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium for the second time since 2018.
In presenting the award to Alexei Navalny, the M100 advisory board, chaired by Potsdam’s Lord Mayor Mike Schubert, is sending a clear signal about the importance of defending European values through an independent opposition and civil society, fair judicial procedures and the right to exercise basic human rights. The award also serves as a symbol for the almost 400 political prisoners in Russia, as well as murdered politicians and journalists and for the fight against increasing autocracy in Europe.
The video recording of the Special Talk and the presentation of the M100 Media Award can be found here.
We thank our supporters, sponsors and partners for their financial and content-related support: City of Potsdam, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Federal Foreign Office, National Endowment for Democracy, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Agentur Medienlabor, BFB, AFP, Human Rights Watch, Institute for Media and Communication Policy (IfM), Reporters without Borders, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, and the VDZ.